x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Syrian rebels attack regime air base with modern arsenal

Rebels attacked a major air base in north-west Syria yesterday, using sophisticated weapons that demonstrated their increasing military strength.

A rebel fighter walks among the debris of damaged residential buildings after several days’  intense fighting between rebel fighters and the Syrian army in the Karm Al Jebel neighbourhood in Aleppo.
A rebel fighter walks among the debris of damaged residential buildings after several days’ intense fighting between rebel fighters and the Syrian army in the Karm Al Jebel neighbourhood in Aleppo.

ISTANBUL //Rebels attacked a major air base in north-west Syria yesterday, using sophisticated weapons that demonstrated their increasing military strength.

The base in Taftanaz, a launch pad for regime helicopter gunships, came under a sustained early-morning assault. Internet video footage showed missiles being fired from a launcher mounted on the back of what appeared to be a civilian vehicle and a ground-based rocket launcher firing from the courtyard in front of a house.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog based in Britain, reported heavy fighting near the base in Idlib province, where rebels seized new ground this week.

The battle for Taftanaz erupted after regime forces launched an unprecedented wave of air strikes in a bid to reverse recent rebel gains, and a day before a major Syrian opposition conference in Qatar.

Taftanaz, about 30 kilometres east of the Turkish border and close to the city of Idlib, a rebel stronghold, is only a few kilometres north of the town of Saraqeb, where rebels were filmed beating and executing unarmed regime soldiers on Thursday.

Yesterday, the Observatory released new videos of pro-regime fighters apparently killing prisoners and mutilating bodies.

At Taftanaz, eight rebel battalions took part in the attack, including the radical Islamist Al Nusra Front. The Syrian Revolution General Commission, a network of activists on the ground, said the aim was to take control of the air base.

It was not known last night whether they had succeeded, but rebels in the area have cut roads linking the northern city of Aleppo with Syria's capital, Damascus, to the south.

The recent fighting sent dozens of wounded civilians into neighbouring Turkey. The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey has risen to 110,600, Ankara's disaster relief body said. Turkey is extending the capacity of its 14 refugee camps to just under 130,000.

Veysel Ayhan, director of the International Middle East Peace Research Centre, a think tank in Ankara, said the Taftanaz attack was an example of the increasing use of modern weapons by the rebels.

"Although the government has been deploying tanks and aircraft, the rebels are slowly gaining ground, at least in some areas," Mr Ayhan said yesterday. "You can't do that without weapons."

Syrian rebels have been hopelessly outgunned in the 19-month old conflict with regime forces in which more than 30,000 people have died.

But the military balance is beginning to change. Last week, a Russian general said the rebels now had modern equipment such as portable anti-aircraft missiles, including shoulder-fired Stinger missile launchers from the United States.

Mr Ayhan said Syria's neighbour Turkey, one of the fiercest critics of Syria's president Bashar Al Assad, played a key role in getting arms supplies to the rebels over the border that stretches for more than 900km.

Officially, Ankara insists that it does not send any arms into Syria, but Mr Ayhan said arms supplies were not left to chance, but were highly organised.

"The weapons would not get there without Turkey," he said.

tseibert@thenational.ae